'Vehicles For Change' Definitely on a Roll

Mar 28, 2014

Credit Jean-jacques QUEYRIE via flickr

In a tidy combination business office, used car lot and detailing center, Vehicles for Change offers a simple solution to poverty and the financial struggle.

'Wheels when you need them,' as another company’s ad puts it. That means every day. That means donating cars so a family’s bread winner can find and keep a job.

Founder Marty Schwartz presides over this 15-year-old social service enterprise. Starting out 15 years ago with $10,000 in loans and $20,000 from an automobile parts supplier, the program built its operation steadily. It now hands out more than 500 cars per year, and has distributed 5,000 cars in all over a decade and a half of existence.

Six months ago, the program added an automobile detailing program that trains and employees ex-offenders. Schwartz says the program has frequently helped families in which one of the members had been in jail. Having urged other employers to give offenders a second chance, he said, doing the same thing seemed only logical and right. “If we’re going to provide cars and we’re going to advocate for getting these people employed why shouldn’t we put our money where our mouth is?” he asked. “It just brings everything full circle for us.”

Schwartz says he never doubted the program would work. “It was an absolute need and so we were just going to make it happen,” he said. “The fact that these guys don’t have opportunities is a crime in and of itself.”

Tavon Williams is one of the new program’s first graduates. He said he’s looking ahead with confidence born of new opportunities – and a new commitment to community. He’s about to start his own detailing business with help from Vehicles for Change. He’s definitely getting a second chance, he says. “At first I had it going on for me. I was supposed to actually go to college on a scholarship for wrestling. .. I just let my neighborhood get the best of me. That’s all.”

In those days, he didn’t listen. Not to his parents. Not to anyone or anything – only to the street. That left him with a long criminal record: driving under the influence, assault, drug, and firearms offenses.

He says he was always a hard worker -- when he had a job. Few if any ever saw that, he says. He’s learned how to detail cars – making them look as if no one ever owned them. Williams gives credit for his decision to listen to the late Rev. Harold Carter, pastor of New Shiloh Baptist Church. Carter was one of the ministers who made frequent visits to Maryland prisons. He would keep coming, he told Williams, as long as he thought there was the chance to find someone who might see the light. “He said I’m going to keep coming until I can’t come no more. At least he got one. I know that for a fact,” he said.

Cars from Vehicles for Change are about 10 years old, on average. They typically have 125,000 miles on them. Recipients are asked to throw in a few hundred dollars to offset the cost of acquiring and making the car presentable – and reliable.

The hope is that the cars will last long enough for families to get good jobs, after which they would be in a position to get a better or another serviceable car. The program’s data suggests that families with transportation make about $7,000 a year on average more than they did when they didn’t have a car at all.

That would qualify as meaningful change to many.